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Virginia faces hurdles after restoring voting rights to felons

By Anthony Advincula New America Media | Last updated: Jun 21, 2013 - 10:30:54 AM

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NEW YORK - Darrell Gooden had wanted to vote in the historic 2008 presidential election, but couldn’t.   As a former felon who was released a year prior, he had no right to cast a ballot under Virginia law. Today, all of that has changed -- for Gooden, and thousands of other ex-felons living in the state.

Last week (May 29), Virginia’s Republican Governor Robert McDonnell announced a policy to automatically restore voting rights for nonviolent felons who have served their time.

“All of a sudden, I feel like I’m a U.S. citizen again,” said Mr. Gooden, 40, who was convicted of marijuana and cocaine possession in 2002 and served nearly five years in prison. “I can’t believe this is really happening.”

Virginia had been one of four states, including Iowa, Florida and Kentucky, where voting rights were not automatically restored once a felon completed his or her prison time, parole or probation.

The change could affect potentially hundreds of thousands of people, especially African Americans, who make up about two-thirds of the state’s prison population.

Although civil rights advocates called the move “a huge milestone,” the state faces challenges in ensuring all eligible ex-felons benefit from the policy, which takes effect next month.

“There’s still a lot to be done, a lot of community outreach to let these people know about the process,” said Tram Nguyen, deputy director of Virginia New Majority. “The biggest challenge is finding them.”

In order to reinstate voting rights, the administration first needs to verify that the person convicted of a nonviolent felony has completed his or her sentence and probation or parole, and has paid all court-imposed costs, fines and restitution to victims. Then, the governor will send the person a letter reinstating the rights, given that the individual has no pending felony charges.

Virginia Secretary of the Commonwealth Janet Kelly said the state does not have a comprehensive database of how many felons have completed their sentences. The state doesn’t track if former felons are still in Virginia or have moved to a different state, she said.

“If you’re sitting in prison right now, we know where you are. If you got out of prison 20 years ago, we don’t know where you are,” Ms. Kelly told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

So far, the state has reportedly managed to locate and identify only 26,000 ex-felons, according to an editorial in the Washington Post. The process is daunting and complicated, and sure to take a long time.

A 2012 NAACP report, “Silenced in Virginia: Citizens Without a Vote,” showed that it may take up to 51 years for a governor to review all applications.

Advocates and supporters, however, say they hope the process can be streamlined, given that Gov. McDonnell’s new policy is mainly focusing on nonviolent felons.

“Other states have done it and so we will figure out more effective ways to make it happen,” said Richael Faithful, a fellow of Equal Justice Works at the Advancement Project.

Ms. Faithful said another complication is that certain felonies can be listed as either nonviolent or violent, depending on the circumstances. Burglary and breaking and entering, for example, are nonviolent felonies, but they can be considered violent if the person had the intent to commit rape or assault. 

“The list of violent felonies is extensive. We’re concerned that many people are not going to be eligible, after all,” added Ms. Faithful. “This is something that we need to pay attention to.”
Because of the ambiguity, in some cases, in the way felonies are classified – violent or nonviolent – advocates say, there’s a wide range given for the number of ex-felons who could possibly benefit from Gov. McDonnell’s restoration policy. Figures have ranged from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands.

While most drug-related crimes are listed as violent felonies in the state, possession is considered a nonviolent felony.

Previously, nonviolent felons had to wait for at least two years and then file an application to reinstate their civil rights. The requirements resulted in low numbers of ex-felons reinstating their voting rights.

Gov. McDonnell’s policy change does not automatically restore voting rights for people convicted of violent felonies. They have to wait a minimum of five years before submitting an application to reinstate their voting rights.

Constituional Amendment

The governor’s restoration policy is not a permanent fix. In seven months, Gov. McDonnell’s term may be ending, and the policy’s fate will be determined by the next elected governor.

Myrna Pérez, counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, said that the only permanent solution is a constitutional amendment, which she described as “a laborious process.”

While it is true that the current policy can be rescinded by another administration, Ms. Pérez believes that the next governor would also be supportive. She said she believes McDonnell’s efforts to eliminate the disenfranchisement of ex-felons was sincere and not a political strategy.

“There’s zero reason to believe that the Republican governor is doing this for another reason. He’s doing it because he believes that this is the right thing to do,” said Ms. Pérez.

Gov. McDonnell had already restored voting rights for more than 4,800 felons, a figure that is higher than any previous administration. In the months before he announced his new policy, he received 1,800 applications, which will now be automatically approved.

According to a Sentencing Project report, 350,000 ex-felons (both nonviolent and violent felony convictions) are disenfranchised in Virginia, and so far only 8,580 felons have had their voting rights restored. 

            Getting his life back
Mr. Gooden, the ex-felon who can now vote, is rebuilding his life with his four sons — now 17, 15, 13 and 11. Upon his release, he took them out of a shelter home where they were living while he was in prison and on probation.

“I lost everything. My arrest took a toll on my relationship and my wife and I got separated,” Mr. Gooden said. “I want to build myself back up.”
Because of his felony conviction, finding a good job has been tough. With few options, he worked as a room-service deliveryman in a local hotel for $2.35 per hour and extra tips.

He now works as a truck driver, a job that pays better, but requires him to be away from home.
Because he is on the road most of the time, he makes sure to spend time with his boys when he is around.

On the day of the 2008 presidential elections, Mr. Gooden said, one of his sons asked him who he voted for in the historic election. He said he struggled to explain why he could not cast his ballot.

“But now I won’t struggle again,” said Mr. Gooden. “I want to tell my kids that getting my voting rights back, there’s a lot of other rights that go with it.”